SAN LUIS OBISPO, CALIFORNIA — With major newspapers cutting investigative departments around the country, including along the Central Coast of California, Karen Velie and Dan Blackburn were concerned that major stories would go uncovered. In late 2007, the pair of veteran newspaper reporters launched their own online outlet focused on just the type of journalism they felt was lacking–hard news and investigations. Initially, Velie and Blackburn launched as Uncovered SLO (San Luis Obispo), an online-only news site, but the name has since changed to CalCoast News, to allow for broader regional coverage.
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New content was slow to appear in the early going, with an in-depth investigative piece “every three weeks,” according to Velie, supplemented by news briefs and occasional links to other sites. One piece about a crooked land developer–which began while she was still working with San Luis Obispo weekly New Times–turned into a four-part series titled “Kelly Gearhart: Fraud, arson and betrayal” and led to an FBI investigation, with arrests pending.
Recognizing that the digital realm was “the future of journalism,” there was never any debate by Velie or Blackburn over whether to add the overhead of a print product. But with no tangible item to announce its presence, Velie had to find some way beyond word-of-mouth to drive traffic. In January 2008, with a slim-to-none marketing budget, Velie turned to another struggling medium: radio.
“Some stations can’t afford daily news segments,” Velie explains. “We’re trying to make a deal where we can sell news to radio stations, thirty-second news segments, or we can write to whatever they need. At first I was doing it for free, but it’s developed into a new way to make online media have income.”
The radio news segments vary in content. Some of the segments are driven by CCN-reported stories, others are more typical radio appearances talking about recent news stories in the area.
Velie points to the hiring of award-winning journalist George Ramos in 2009 as a watershed moment for the then-young site. Prior to his hiring, Velie sat down to dinner with Ramos and shared her frustrations about the challenges of producing investigative work with minimal staff. Ramos responded that he’d be interested in joining the CCN team, telling Velie, “I’ll work for beer.” Ramos, who helped take home three Pulitzer Prizes for the Los Angeles Times before retiring in 2003, subsequently worked (for free) as the lead editor on all CCN investigative pieces. He continued his work with the site until his death in June 2011, at age sixty-three.
CalCoast News has evolved in recent years to include more than just investigative work. The site publishes daily arts and events coverage, and decidedly uninvestigative slideshows such as this one of the Morro Bay Avocado and Margarita Festival are now a considerable source of traffic. A sports section is under consideration.
Monetizing the site remains a challenge. Velie has looked to new revenue streams, including the radio segments, serializing novels, and selling e-books. Some revenue comes the old-fashioned way: selling ads to local businesses. One-fifth of the site’s revenue comes from donations, according to Velie. That money coming in has to support Velie and her two full-time co-workers, along with paying news contributors. Interns and contributors who write film and music reviews are not compensated.
Media law expert and California Polytechnic professor Bill Loving is now CalCoast News’s editor. The site currently averages 75,000 unique visitors per month according to internal numbers, and Velie is appearing on six radio shows weekly, including a morning music station. The stories the site produces reverberate across the Central Coast, and the site’s credibility is on the rise. It’s the kind of work that Velie built the site on and the kind of work that has kept CCN on the news media map.
CalCoast News Data
Name: CalCoast News
City: San Luis Obispo